A damaged electrical pylon hangs near the village of Chonhar in Kherson region, Ukraine, Nov. 23, 2015. (Reuters)

Crimea, annexed by Russia last year — although to date the annexation is recognized by only handful of countries — is back in the news. On Nov. 22, 2015, Crimea’s electricity towers were blown up, leaving the region dark. Mainland Ukraine had been supplying most of Crimea’s electricity since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March 2014, but has not stepped up since the towers blew up. Ukraine has no legal responsibility to provide the occupied territory with electricity, but refusing to help provide power of course has the possibility of alienating Crimean residents from the Ukrainian regime. Alternatively, if Russia is seen as unable to ensure something as basic as power in its newly acquired territory, perhaps this will turn more residents against the annexation and in favor of a return to Ukraine.  All of which once again points to the importance of understanding how Crimeans see themselves in terms of their own national identity.

Many observers have suggested that since most Crimeans were ethnically Russian, they were therefore loyal to Russia, and therefore welcomed annexation. But is it true? Would Crimeans have voted to join Russia if the referendum had been legal, free and fair?

As is often the case, the actual evidence suggests a much more complicated picture. Back in the 1990s, Crimean separatists had tried to secede from Ukraine, in part to be closer to Russia. They were able to organize a referendum in 1994, which Kiev declared illegal. This referendum showed mass support for a “treaty based” relationship between Kiev and Crimea, and for allowing dual Russian and Ukrainian citizenship, which was banned under Ukrainian law. However, following this peak, the movement failed to achieve secession, weakened by the egoism of its leader, Yurii Meshkov, who failed to foster ideological cohesion within the movement, nor secure enough mass support to crystallize a viable opposition to the Ukrainian state. After this, separatist politicians became the “losers” of mainstream politics in Crimea, according to those I interviewed, and popular support for separatism waned.

What’s more, Crimea is not in fact populated by an ethnically Russian, pro-Russian majority. That’s far too homogenized an image of the peninsula. In fact, before annexation, Crimea’s Russian ethnic majority was highly fractured and contested, as I will explain in the remainder of this post. Therefore, it is important to go beyond simple explanations of ethnicity as a cause of annexation, or an indicator of support for Russia.

Five categories of Crimean ethnic identity

In 2012 and 2013, as part of my PhD research, I conducted 53 interviews in Simferopol, Crimea, to examine the meanings of being Russian in Crimea. I interviewed individuals from across the political and social spectrum, including many from the post-Soviet generation, to unpack the experiences of being Russian in relation to Ukraine, Russia and Crimea.


Russian ethnicity across Ukraine. Data: Ukrainian Census 2001, Figure: Eleanor Knott

Russian Language Across Ukraine
Data: Ukrainian Census 2001, Figure: Eleanor Knott

Based on this data, I constructed categories to help explain the complexity of Russian identity that I observed. Except for the final category, all respondents said that Russian was their native language and language of common communication.

  1. Discriminated Russians
  2. Ethnic Russians
  3. Crimeans
  4. Political Ukrainians
  5. Ethnic Ukrainians

These categories offer a more nuanced look at Crimean and Ukrainian identity, going beyond the mutually exclusive ethnic and census categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian” that most observers have used before now. Using these can help illuminate how Crimeans are actually negotiating complex questions of identity, loyalty and territorial aspirations. Let me describe these categories in more detail.

Discriminated Russians most ardently identified as Russian, ethnically, culturally and linguistically, and were supporters of Russia. They felt marginalized and threatened by Ukraine’s policies of Ukrainization, and were members of pro-Russian organizations. By 2014, these organizations came to endorse annexation. That catapulted their leaders, like Sergei Aksenov of Crimea’s pro-Russian party (Russkoe Edinstvo), to positions of power — and helped Russia claim some  legitimacy in its occupation. It’s important to note, however, that before 2014, only these few highly politicized individuals, including pensioners, were claiming that they were the victims of discrimination.

Discrimination was therefore a sentiment of those who felt they lost out from post-Soviet politics, rather than those willing and able to adapt, in particular the younger post-Soviet generation.

By contrast, Ethnic Russians identified as ethnically Russian. But they expressed no sense of being discriminated against by Ukraine. Instead, they felt a sense of legitimacy in being Russian, and at the same time, they were not only happy to reside in, but felt a sense of belonging to, Ukraine.

Crimeans and Political Ukrainians blurred ethnic categories in ways that could not be captured by censuses.

Crimeans described Crimean (“Krymchan”) as their primary identity, saying that they identified as both ethnically Ukrainian and Russian, having come from ethnically mixed families. They expressed a sense of belonging — both as individuals and as a territory — to both Ukraine and Russia.

Political Ukrainians subverted ethnic categories. They defined themselves in terms of their political connections to Ukraine, as post-Soviet citizens of Ukraine. While they identified their parents as ethnically Russian, Russia was a foreign place to them. They felt that ethnicity did not determine their life chances in Crimea or Ukraine because everyone — no matter what ethnicity — “lives badly.”

Unlike Ethnic Ukrainians, Political Ukrainians saw themselves as a post-Soviet category who could conceive of themselves as Ukrainian and from Crimea.

Ethnic Ukrainians explained themselves as Ukrainian, culturally and ethnically, because they were born in parts of Ukraine that were outside Crimea.

These categories revealed a lack of association among identity, citizenship status and territorial aspirations. None of those I interviewed held, or admitted to holding, Russian citizenship, citing it as inaccessible and/or undesirable. Only Discriminated Russians wanted, but could not access, Russian citizenship; they wanted leverage against Ukraine, which they felt marginalized them. All other categories saw Russian citizenship as undesirable, offering rights they neither needed nor wanted.

None of the people I interviewed wanted to secede from Ukraine or to join Russia. They were, rather, happy with the status quo. Even Discriminated Russians, the most pro-Russian and pro-Russia category, supported the territorial status quo, preferring peace to separatism or unification, which they associated with “bloodshed” and a “cataclysm.” Regardless of how they identified, my respondents said that separatist sentiments had existed only on the political margins after the failure of the separatist movement to achieve secession in 1994.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was anything but inevitable

In other words, I did not find a Crimea that was overwhelmingly identified as Russian, with residents yearning to return to the country where they truly belonged. Rather, Russian identity was complex, fractured and contested. Just because someone identified as Russian did not mean they would be politically pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian.

Further, just because someone identified as Russian, it did not mean they wanted to join Russia. All my respondents saw Ukraine as legitimate and wanted to remain within it. Even Discriminated Russians preferred a “bad peace” to a “good war,” as David Laitin argued for ethnic Russians in post-Soviet Estonia.

In other words, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was anything but inevitable. It was instead a critical break that came after Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests. Ethnic Russian identity or mixed loyalty does not explain Crimea’s annexation or the ongoing Donbas conflict. How and why did Crimea’s pro-Russian organizations and Ukraine’s Party of Regions become willing participants of Russia’s annexation? That is a large and more complex question, and deserves an answer that’s better than a simplistic recitation of ethnicity.

Eleanor Knott is a PhD candidate in political science (expected 2015) at the London School of Economics.